It is never the intention of governments to actually pollute the Earth. On the contrary, they enact and enforce laws that aim to protect the environment. However, even in their pursuit of sustainable growth, at times, there are missing steps and unintended consequences. Policies paving the way for the shift to renewable energy provides a number of examples of this.
The moratorium on new coal-fueled power plants, for instance, is moving initiatives and capital towards renewables. It is already forecast to result in about $30 billion worth of investments in renewable energy by 2030, according to a commentary by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
The IEEFA also expects the share of coal in the Philippine energy supply mix to drop to 16% from the current 41.5% in the next 10 years, and the contribution of solar and wind to rise to a combined 43.8% from 5.4% to date. This shift paves the way for what Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi referred to as “sustainable growth” on the back of “cleaner energy sources.”
With this shift, initial capital investment may be high, but operating costs of solar and wind power plants will definitely be lower than coal and other power generators running on fossil-based fuel. The shift also cuts our spending on imported coal and oil, and the environmental damage resulting from the extraction of local coal. But the shift will also have its own “costs.”
As I wrote previously, I believe that reducing power industry demand particularly for fossil fuel like bunker oil and coal can insulate us from external factors like supply bottlenecks and geopolitics that impact on the supply, transport, and prices of imported fuel. I also wrote that I believed the Energy department was on the right track. But I also noted lowering energy and fuel prices should not be at any cost to the environment. In short, clean energy should be a win-win. However, for this to happen, the investments should not just be in renewable energy production, but should also be in recycling in its related components as well.
A report in Bloomberg Green by Chris Martin noted how wind turbine blades from wind energy farms all over the world couldn’t be recycled and were now piling up in landfills, and that companies were now searching for ways to deal with the tens of thousands of blades that have reached the end of their lives.
And just to provide readers some reference, Martin noted that a wind turbine’s blade could be “longer than a Boeing 747 wing, so at the end of their lifespan they can’t just be hauled away. First, you need to saw through the lissome fiberglass using a diamond-encrusted industrial saw to create three pieces small enough to be strapped to a tractor-trailer.”
In short, while disposal doesn’t happen often, it does happen. And, it is far from easy. Worse, it doesn’t seem like large-scale recycling is an option at this point. So, those used giant fiberglass blades will mostly end up getting dumped in landfills and add to solid waste pollution. I am uncertain if they degrade over time, and if they do, if toxic waste goes into the soil.
Energy policy cannot be short-sighted. If the government will offer incentives to companies that will invest in renewable energy, then it should also require them to provide for technologies and facilities to recycle their own waste. Or, offer incentives as well to companies that will go into the business of recycling used components for the renewable energy industry.
Isn’t it that we require industries to clean and recycle their own waste water? Then, why can’t we require solar energy companies to recycle their own used solar panels, or wind energy companies to recycle their own used wind turbine blades? Why should these industries be allowed to leave other people — or government landfills — to deal with their wastes?
The “problem” with turbine blades is that they are too well-built. They have been manufactured to withstand the elements and extremely severe weather. And so, the fiberglass blades cannot just be “crushed, recycled or repurposed,” reported Bloomberg Green, thus the “urgent search for alternatives in places that lack wide-open prairies.”
In the US, Bloomberg Green added, used turbine blades could go only to several landfills that are willing to accept them. And “the wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” Bloomberg Green quoted Bob Cappadona, chief operating officer for the North American unit of Paris-based Veolia Environnement SA. “Most landfills are considered a dry tomb,” he said.
Simply put, the very things we are doing now, like shifting to renewable energy, to save the environment, are the very things that will become the source of environmental challenges in the future. That is, if we don’t plan things better. “Clean up” should always be part of the energy agenda, and should be required of all future investments in the energy industry.
Obviously, this is going to be easier said than done. In the US alone, Bloomberg Green reported, about 8,000 blades will go down annually in the next four years. Europe will have about 3,800 blades to replace every year all the way to past 2022. In just the last decade, far more wind turbines have come online, and these will be contributing to “blade waste” in the future.
Used blades have been used to fire up kilns in cement and power plants in Europe, which seems like a good idea. However, “burning fiberglass emits pollutants,” reported Bloomberg Green. It also reported that one company is looking into grinding them to dust, while another developed a method to break down blades and press them into pellets and fiber boards to be used for flooring and walls. But more needs to be done to achieve a significant level of recycling.
The “problem” affects the solar energy industry as well. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and this will result in about six million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. And, just like wind turbine blades, these used solar panels will also mostly end up in landfills. And with solar panels, when they break down, toxic waste actually goes into the soil.
As I had written previously, I am all for going renewable, and I believe solar and wind are good options for the Philippines. Add to this geothermal energy. However, when the government and investors plan on these renewable energy projects, are they also planning on how to dispose or recycle damaged or end-of-life solar panels and turbine blades?
This early, we need government regulations on proper disposal. We need science- and data-based policies and standards on how to “recycle” renewable energy components. And we need to incentivize investments in facilities and technologies that can put to good use the “waste” generated by the renewable energy industry. For there will be waste, and lots of it.
The shift to renewables is a solid waste management problem down the line. As we look into it now, we also need to start investing in the manufacturing and installation of equipment and renewable energy systems that could actually be recycled or “renewed” later on. For the system to work, and to protect the environment, renewable energy and recycling must go together.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council